Effective Leadership in the New Testament


“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (Jas 3:1) These words open up the third chapter of the epistle of James. James was a leader. He was the head of the Jerusalem church in its very earliest days. During the time when most of what we now call the New Testament was being written, he was there. Even more importantly, he had the privilege and opportunity to grow up in the shadow of an older brother who was the greatest model of leadership in all of history.

In our time, there is an abundance of books regularly hitting the shelves on how to be a great leader. For the most part, they all seem to be saying the same thing. Either the same tired principles do not work or nobody is listening because the lack of good leadership is a growing problem in every sphere of life. Perhaps it is time to stop reading and ignoring the same tired books by different authors who all too often are more interested in their sales than their effectiveness. Too many people are presuming to be teachers on leadership who cannot write well and should not be leading anybody.

Perhaps it is time to go back to an older book that holds just as much relevance today as it did when it was written. Although leadership was not the focus of most of what they wrote, there is much that can be gleaned from the authors of the New Testament. The example and writings of men like James, Peter, Paul, Luke, and Jesus can teach us everything we need to be an effective leader in the twenty-first century. From their example, we can see that an effective leader in our day must be a humble servant, loving, and Christ-led.

An Effective Leader is a Humble Servant

Humility is often viewed as a negative concept in our time. This is because the word itself is misunderstood. Most people understand humility as thinking less of yourself. But that is not humility. Humility is simply thinking of yourself less. When someone is truly aware of who they are in Christ, then they can get on with doing the kingdom business rather than embracing the spotlight to make themselves appear greater or avoiding a task because they have a false sense of inferiority. Jesus is a perfect example of this. In John 13:3-4 we read, “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was going to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.” Jesus knew who he was, so he served. It was not a self-deprecating act. It was a selfless act. The disciples needed a lesson, and feet needed to be washed. So Jesus stepped up and did it.

A picture of this upper room incident is on the cover of Don Howell’s book, Servants of the Servant. About the incident, Howell writes, “the path to promotion… is the way of the servant.”  This is true, but if it is promotion we seek, then we are not truly walking the way of the servant. True leadership is not about the promotion; it is about doing whatever needs to be done to serve God and others. Paul saw and wrote about this attitude displayed in Jesus. He wrote, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:” (Phil 2:3-5) Paul then goes on to describe how Jesus voluntarily accepted the greatest “demotion” in history. He did not grasp hold of his own status or power but laid it all aside for others and then, through this, was “promoted” and everyone who has ever existed will recognize his authority.

In the very next chapter, Paul demonstrates how he has applied the same principle in his own life. He had every right to boast and brag. He had the breeding, the education, and the passion to have become someone great through his own efforts and circumstances. But Paul said, “whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” (Phil 3:7) For Paul, only one thing mattered: “I want to know Christ” (Phil 3:10). These weren’t just words from Paul to the church in Philippi. They aligned well with his actions in that city. When arrested there, Paul had every right to throw around his Roman citizenship and cling to his own rights and authority. But as Benjamin Forrest writes, Paul was determined “to use power and authority, in whatever form, not to protect himself or further his own agenda but, rather, in service of the gospel, for the eternal good of his fellow human beings. For Paul, this is what it meant to be a servant leader.”

One of the shortest books in the Bible gives us a negative example of the opposite of the humble servant. In third John, we read about Diotrephes, “who loves to be first” (3 John 9). This was a church “leader” who was grasping for his own authority and, as a result, doing what he could to hinder anyone who might rival that authority. His pride prevented him from becoming the effective leader he might otherwise have been. About this Forrest writes, “John vehemently shows that personal pride and Christian leadership are incompatible.”

An Effective Leader is Loving

The idea of being loving as an essential characteristic of an effective leader is probably even more counterintuitive than that of humility. This again is because the world often does not fully understand what it means to be loving. Most definitions of the word would probably include descriptors like “affectionate,” “feeling,” or “nurturing.” While none of these are incorrect, it only paints a surface picture of what love really is. The greatest definition of love is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. If we replace the word “love” with “an effective leader” it will become immediately obvious why being loving is an essential characteristic for any leader at any time.

  1. An effective leader is patient (13:4).
  2. An effective leader is kind (13:4).
  3. An effective leader does not envy (13:4).
  4. An effective leader does not boast (13:4).
  5. An effective leader is not proud (13:4).
  6. An effective leader does not disrespect others (13:5).
  7. An effective leader is not self-seeking (13:5).
  8. An effective leader is not quick tempered (13:5).
  9. An effective leader doesn’t hold grudges (13:5).
  10. An effective leader prefers truth over evil (13:6).
  11. An effective leader is protective of others (13:7).
  12. An effective leader is trusting (13:7).
  13. An effective leader is hopeful (13:7).
  14. An effective leader perseveres (13:7).

One of the most common questions an American is asked when they are overseas is, “Why Trump?” More often than not, this question will come up within sixty seconds of an American ex-pat or traveler meeting someone new for the first time. Even though the president has intelligence and talent and has done well with many of the things he has set out to accomplish, he is not respected. His power is only positional. This is because he fails on so many of the points above. He has no character. He is not loving. Malphurs quotes Howard Hendricks saying, “The greatest crisis in the world today is a crisis of leadership, and the greatest crisis of leadership is a crisis of character.”

An Effective Leader is Christ-led

Near the end of First Peter, the apostle gives an appeal to the elders of the churches he is addressing. Peter writes, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples of the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”

Any effective leader must understand that they are only an “under-shepherd”. This is not just true for those in a church leadership position. It is true for businessmen and politicians, for parents and teachers, and for coaches and cops. Anyone who wants to be effective in positively influencing others should be Christ led. No matter what authority someone might have over others, Christ is the ultimate authority. Forrest writes that the “absolute authority of Jesus is essential to keep in mind, for it will shape all the observations that are made about leadership.”

How effectively am I leading others? This question is best answered by asking first, “How closely am I following Christ?”


A few short decades after Christ returned to heaven Paul and his traveling companions entered into the city of Thessalonica. Some others who were jealous of how quickly and effectively the gospel was spreading grabbed some of the Christians and brought them before the political leaders. They complained that these men who have “turned the world upside down” (acts 17:6 KJV) have now come here also. The leaders of the early church, serving under Christ, transformed their generation and reshaped history. They didn’t do it using leadership fads built off pop psychology. They didn’t grasp for military or political power. They didn’t have any financial savvy or an ivy league education. They did it by following the leadership example that a carpenter from Galilee taught them.

They were loving. Because they loved others, they were willing to humbly serve those around them even at great personal cost. Jesus and James, Peter and Paul, all died for the cause. Even as the church grew and gained influence on the world stage, this first generation did not grasp at that power or their own personal rights but only used it in the service of others.

Because they loved Christ, they followed where he led. As they followed Christ, others followed them (1 Cor 11:1). What started with one man was carried on by twelve disciples. Then it continued with 120 in the upper room who became thousands on the streets. Each person who took up their cross to follow Christ became a leader that others would follow. This is still true today. This world needs another generation that will turn the world upside down. This world needs humble servants who will love others and love God enough to follow him all the way to the cross.

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